What would it cost to reduce crime in Chicago?

Experts peg the yearly costs at hundreds of millions — and as high as $1 billion — to make Chicago as safe as New York or Los Angeles.

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Outreach workers from ALSO walk through the Humboldt Park neighborhood. ALSO is one of more than a dozen anti-violence groups receiving city funding to de-escalate violent conflicts and recruit high-risk residents to participate in programs that provide therapy, job training and an income.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Crime and violence cost Chicago billions each year: Lost lives and hospital costs for victims; lost tax revenue from falling property values and residents leaving the city; economic growth when businesses choose to locate someplace safer.

And the city spends a lot on crime fighting. The Chicago Police Department annual budget is just under $2 billion. Cook County budgets $1.4 billion for the Sheriff’s department, jail, and criminal court system. The state prison system, which gets nearly half its inmates from Cook County, costs another $1.5 billion.

What would it cost to bring violent crime in Chicago under control? A lot, experts say, although just how much is up for debate.

A report by the privately funded anti-violence program Chicago CRED estimates the city would have to spend $405 million per year for five years — in addition to what it currently spends — to reduce crime to the levels of big city peers New York or Los Angeles.

In a speech to the City Club of Chicago last month, University of Chicago Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig suggested an even higher number: $1 billion per year for violence prevention spending and increased policing, to reduce crime in Chicago by 50%.

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Arne Duncan (right), CEO of Chicago CRED, hugs Deamonte Parker after Parker received his high school diploma during a graduation ceremony for graduates of the CRED program on Aug. 19, 2021.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Those estimates may get a test in 2022, when record levels of funding will flow into anti-violence efforts, thanks in large part to COVID-19 relief funds that will expire over the next two years.

“This year is critical. The city cannot have a third straight year of rising violence,” said Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago CRED.

“What I want is to take things to scale,” Duncan said. “I want us to demonstrate what’s possible before funding runs out ... so it gets built into existing funding streams.”

CRED estimates that combined funding from foundations, the city, state and federal government for violence prevention programs will total $184 million — double the spending in 2021, and roughly what CRED estimates needs to go to anti-violence spending annually.

Last year, the number of murders increased 4% in Chicago, alongside a 10% bump in shootings, which might seem to show that the city’s investment in violence prevention was misspent.

But CRED and the dozens of other anti-violence programs that received city funding enrolled only about 2,500 participants citywide. Last year alone, nearly 4,000 people were shot in Chicago. CRED estimates there are 26,000 people who fit in the high-risk category of its recruits just in 17 of the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods.

“To say that shootings and the aggregate homicide rate went up last year, and so we have to cut funding for these programs, is unreasonable. When crime goes up, do we say that it’s time to cut funding for police?” said Andrew Papachristos, a Northwestern University researcher who has studied CRED and related programs.

“ ... We are not close to touching enough people to move an aggregate homicide rate.”

An analysis of another anti-violence program, READI Chicago, estimated that the city saves $185,000 in social costs —loss of life, hospital services, the cost of policing and incarceration — for the $60,000 cost to put a participant through the 20-month program. In all, the $135 million in public funds going to violence prevention in 2022 is less than what CPD spent on overtime in 2021.

CRED’s analysis estimates that the city would gain around $3 billion in savings for those social costs and increased tax revenue if violence in Chicago fell to the rate of New York—meaning annual murders would fall 80%, to around 150 killings per year, a level not seen in Chicago since the 1940s.

Research on the effects of increased policing shows strong results, but police jobs are expensive investments, and they come with “external costs” that community-based, non-police strategies do not, said Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton University researcher.

More police and more aggressive policing can reduce crime in the short term, but can create the kind of hostility in the community that can boil over into unrest or lead residents to be less likely to cooperate with police, Sharkey said. A truly effective strategy, Sharkey said, would involve community-based programs and investments, direct outreach to high-risk individuals and more policing but using strategies and tactics that don’t alienate entire communities.

“These [outreach] programs are part of a solution to crime. They are not a threat to police departments whatsoever,” Sharkey said. “You should not be scaling back on law enforcement when you are in the midst of spiking gun violence. But we need to get to a point where we’re investing in other institutions at a scale where they can have a chance to have a transformative impact.”

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